The Magazine

Watch the Birdie

Golf as sport and theater of human nature.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Arthur Herman posed a bold but credible claim. But there was a major omission: The game of golf, which, with steam engines and classical economics, also originated in the foggy reaches of the Celtic fringe. The royal and ancient game, moreover, suffers from being more joked about than any other sport—“a good walk ruined,” etc., whoever among many claimants first said that. “No one guilty of golf,” pronounced H. L. Mencken, “should be eligible to any office of profit or trust.”

Watch the Birdie

If I were prescribing a cure for those who deny themselves the game’s pleasures and miseries, if only as students or spectators, I would recommend a double dose of Mark Frost. In two eloquent chronicles of historic matches, Frost brings a remarkable humanism to the cliché-ridden world of sportswriting. His long suit is a grasp of its personalities, the forces that shaped them, and the tense interaction of human temperament with tricky terrain.

From its earliest arrival on these shores—late 19th/early 20th centuries—golf’s patrons and their governing organization, the United States Golf Association, insisted that it must remain a game for gentlemen amateurs. It is a mark of that snobbery that at the U.S. Open of 1913, the dramatic centerpiece of the first of these two books, amateurs were accorded the honorific “Mr.” on the entry lists while professionals, many of them club-affiliated (in the days before tours) and recent immigrants from Great Britain, were denied it—and even the privilege of changing shoes in clubhouse locker rooms.

The Greatest Game Ever Played tells the story of Francis Ouimet, a boy of working-class origins who grew up just across Clyde Street from the Country Club of Brookline, Massachusetts. That club claims to be the first American citadel of the game, though its golf course followed earlier sports venues such as horse racing, polo, and curling. Ouimet made his way into its gilded circles by way of the caddy shack, and it was while humping clubs for one of the Country Club’s gilded members that he was invited one day to hit a ball and his exceptional talent, honed at odd hours when the course was deserted, was noticed.

Frost opens The Greatest Game with the boy Ouimet, then 7, adding a Vardon Flyer ball to the collection he retrieved in off-hours from the hazards of the Country Club and kept in a tin box in his bedroom. The ball was named for Harry Vardon, an English professional from the Isle of Jersey who had already become the most admired and emulated golfer in the world.

The fates evidently took notice. Thirteen years later, Ouimet, then 20, defeated Vardon in an epic U.S. Open playoff. By way of delineating character, Frost takes us through the obstacles these two principals overcame on the way to their celebrated 1913 encounter. For Ouimet, they were economic and social: A world separated his side of Clyde Street from the Country Club of Brookline. Add an unsympathetic father who thought his son would become a ne’er-do-well among the stuffy gentlemen across the street. For Vardon, another poor boy made good, the impediments were not only social but physical: At the height of his celebrity, Vardon was laid low by tuberculosis, for which there was then no known medication. He retired to a sanatorium in Norfolk and gradually overcame the infection. But it impaired tissues in his right hand and left him with a nearly uncontrollable tremor that was hell on his putting. He conquered it by willpower.

The Match is the story of a later legendary match-play encounter, at Pebble Beach in 1956 between the two reigning amateurs of the day, Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi, and the two preeminent professionals, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. The match was an informally arranged sidebar to that year’s Bing Crosby “clambake” and the principal bet was that the amateurs would prevail, as they nearly did. The link connecting Frost’s two tales, four decades apart, is that Ouimet’s pint-sized caddy in the 1913 Open, Eddie Lowery, had prospered as a West Coast auto dealer and played a role in arranging the match. All four played breathtaking golf, their best balls well below par on one of the world’s most challenging courses, and Hogan’s eagle became the sole margin of difference.

Perhaps one need have been a boyish addict of the game in the 1950s, as I was, to grasp the pre-Arnie, pre-Nicklaus, pre-Tiger preeminence of Ben Hogan. Like Ouimet and Vardon, Venturi and many others, Hogan surmounted formidable social obstacles to reach the top. It was not known then that Hogan’s stoic self-containment was probably, in part, the psychological remnant of having as a small boy witnessed his father’s suicide by gunshot. But everyone did know that Hogan had recently rallied from a devastating automobile accident that nearly killed him and permanently stiffened both legs.

The Match seems to me structurally perfect, its companion book somewhat more discursive and, at times, a bit self-consciously literary. And as usual, the subtitles needlessly exaggerate the already remarkable. Frost is a master of golf history and lore and relates in lavish pointillist detail how the great golf courses evolved and who designed them; how clubs with strange names with whippy wooden shafts became today’s high-tech weapons; how the ball evolved; how pars and birdies and bogeys and such became the game’s scoring measures—an education in the history and lore of the game. Who knew, for instance, that the “Colonel Bogey March” derived its name from golf?

As for the misplaced blindness to the charms of golf, there is this to be said: It is the lone competitive sport in America whose courtesies remain intact, along with a self-regulating honor system of scoring. It is a game which, given equal skills, depends uniquely upon mood and chance, a mental test in which play can veer from elation to catastrophe in minutes or seconds. As is frequently observed, golf matches are often “won and lost between the ears.” And as for its bucolic settings, that attraction has rarely been better summed up than in Bernard Darwin’s farewell to golf after long years as a player, organizer, and writer for the Times of London. Wrote Charles Darwin’s grandson:

To have done the only kind of work that one could have liked, in green and pleasant places and amid pleasant, friendly people—that is something to be grateful for, and the wind is still blowing on the heath.

Every word is true.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., former editor and columnist, describes himself as a recovering golf addict.

Recent Blog Posts